A Discussion of Lecturers

Graphics by Rose Lee

The BRB Bottomline: A college degree opens pathways, and students are more willing to pay for it. However, as institutions shift costs towards research and facilities, they focus less on retaining lecturers and try to keep costs down.


As Berkeley students, we’ve had our fair share of instructors. There are those that assign easy write-ups, or notoriously hard papers. Some remember the thought-provoking discussions or the fascinating science demonstrations they saw in class. But a large proportion of these instructors are lecturers, not professors. Every year, they struggle with low pay, a demanding workload and the possibility of not getting a job the following semester.

Pathways and Prospects

At most universities, professors are classified into two groups: tenure track and non-tenure track faculty. 

Labor statistics show that the median pay at Berkeley for lecturers is around $35000, while a tenured professor makes about $101000. This large pay gap is not pronounced at the beginning of an academic career. According to the University of California Office of the President website, the base salary for an assistant professor is $66,100, up to a maximum of $459,000 per year.  A lecturer, by contrast, starts at $48400 per year and a senior lecturer can earn a maximum of $175,800. However, these are ranges for “full time lecturers”, defined as teaching at least three classes per year. Many lecturers are only part-time lecturers and are therefore earning much less than this range. The pay scale is released by the University of California, however those outside the university administration cannot identify with certainty the factors that go into determining how much an instructor is paid.

History

Until the 1980s, non-tenured track faculty have been hired on a part-time basis—to fill in for a professor on leave or to teach a class in a semester. As a bachelor’s degree became a prerequisite to more jobs, enrollment at community colleges and universities increased dramatically, and institutions struggled to keep up with the demand. To cope with the surge of college students, full-time non-tenure track faculty (lecturers) taught  more classes. From 1975 to 2015 the academic labor force changed significantly. The percentage of the tenure-track faculty across US institutions fell from 45.1% to 29.6%, while the percentage of lecturers rose by the same amount.

From a financial standpoint, it is often cheaper to hire lecturers, who can be let go if the university sees it best. According to Berkeley lecturer Dr. Joanna Reed, the 2008 recession led to a decline in funding for state universities. To compensate, there have been fewer tenure-track faculty hired since then.

Implications

What happens to the funds saved by hiring cheaper faculty? Would public schools, such as Berkeley, use them to close the budget deficit? According to Steven Hurlburt and Michael McGarrah, two researchers from the American Institutes for Research, the money saved is often used to boost administration and maintenance. Proponents argue that a new residence hall, or building, would improve the undergraduate experience. This practice of “cost-shifting” implies that universities are confident that the reduced pay would not reduce a lecturer’s motivation to guiding students.

Dr. Reed, a lecturer in sociology, agrees with this notion. From her point of view, lecturers have the same responsibility as professors do in developing a class. Aside from actual teaching, they write recommendation letters, hold extra office hours, attend talks, support research, develop a class and support graduate student instructors.

In practice, however, this is not always the case. According to Dr. Crystal Chang Cohen, a lecturer in global studies, at one point she had to teach at Berkeley and San Francisco State Universityjust to pay the bills, which required her to drive across three bridges three times a week. Although Berkeley pays its instructors a median of $8500 per course, more than the median of $2700 nationally, living in the Bay Area also comes with elevated expenses. Housing, for example, costs 225% more than the national average.

Lecturers often have to look for other sources of income to make ends meet. Some UC Berkeley Law and Haas instructors also have full-time employment at a law firm or enterprise, and other instructors rely on their spouses who have higher paying jobs. Others, however, have to take on multiple jobs. Lecturers who spend most of their time teaching multiple classes just to earn a living wage are not able to spend time in career development. Writing books, pursuing research ambitions and spending time with family members are some of the opportunities they cannot pursue. Applying for a tenure-track position leads to generally better prospects and starting salary—but research is crucial to getting an appointment. With the overall decrease in tenure track positions across the country, more academics have turned to lecturer positions as full-time careers. 

But students lose out too. Many instructors are constrained by time and job security. Having to split up office hours between campuses, many lecturers have to restrict office hours. Students who need homework help, or wish to explore more about the subject, are unable to meet the instructor to converse more.

Further, students may return to an instructor to ask for mentorship or for letters of recommendation after the semester has ended. If a lecturer was released, students cannot collaborate with them. In the end, a lecturer is limited in terms of benefits, job security and pay. While this represents a loss for lecturers, students who came for a world class education lose out too.

Teaching Evaluations and Rehiring

Close to the end of the semester, there is an evaluation submitted by students on behalf of an instructor. On a scale of 1 to 7, lecturers are judged based on teaching effectiveness, class engagement, and learning experience. Favorable evaluations are crucial to a lecturer’s re-appointment. If a lecturer teaches for more than six years, they can go through a review process and become a continuing lecturer, with more job security and better pay. Not all lecturers make it through this review.

However, there is significant research that demonstrates that these evaluations are not objective.

“A poor midterm grade or bias against the instructor is enough for a student to submit a negative rating. In addition, many students are not incentivized to leave positive evaluations.” Dr. Reed said.

Because these evaluations are important, the lecturer union has called for third-party auditors, or more qualitative questionnaires to provide a more neutral perspective on instructor performance. However, these have yet to be incorporated.


Take-Home Points

Professors and lecturers alike are the cornerstone of any undergraduate experience. However, many lecturers struggle to pay the bills and have to work unconventionally long hours just to make ends meet. Amid budget cuts, some lecturers have been subjected to tougher job evaluations in order to continue teaching. As a student, be sure to be fair and objective during instructor evaluations—their job counts on it.

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